The Gathering: Making God Known
How do we make God known? It’s not our first question tonight, but let’s keep it in mind as we work through our reading and message this evening. The answer might seem apparent: We make God known by practicing good. But the question we really should consider is this: How do we know what practicing good looks like? Again, maybe that seems overly obvious, and the answers have more to do with not causing hurt to one another and welcoming everyone in God’s love… But when we consider this brief letter of 3 John, we can see parallels of how the wheels come off when we try to practice good in community —even when our intentions seem good. So tonight, we’re going to talk about what good looks like in our communities and how to practice it. John We don’t really know who wrote this letter of 3 John. We have some guesses, but simply because John’s name is written on it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s John, the half brother of Jesus, as some have thought; or that it’s John, the son of Zebedee, AKA: “The one whom Jesus loved…”; or that it’s John of Patmos, who is believed to have written the book of Revelation; an no one ever though it was John the Baptist. More than likely, it was the Johannine tradition; that is, the people who followed John’s teaching. The John who wrote the Gospel of John. Who, again, is only known as the apostle whom Jesus loved, was present at the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the empty tomb and the sea of Galilee, after the resurrection. But scholars still don’t know if this John is John, the son of Zebedee. We don’t need to get hung up on that, though. The issue in this text — the reason that John (or his people) are writing it — is because of a rift that needs his attention. There seems to be a leader of a nearby church named Diotrephes who is going a bit rogue. At the time of the early church, it wasn’t like the apostles were all hanging out and checking in with all the congregations… It was a huge territory, and it might be years before another visit, if at all… But when a problem arose, they would generally write a letter — an epistle — for someone in the church to read to the congregation. As the young congregations grew, they suffered some growing pains: Questions over what was intended and what was the right way to live and “do church,” so to speak. And that caused rifts and schism. According to the writer of 3 John, this was happening in the church for whom the letter is written. And it simply is this: Diotrephes, in one rogue church, is trying to convince the leader of the church being written to — his name is Gaius — that Gaius’s church shouldn’t welcome anyone Diotrephes won’t welcome. That, unfortunately, means the missionaries sent out by John and other apostles to strengthen current churches and build new faith communities. *** You ever wonder today about those churches that aren’t affiliated with any other churches or denominations? You know, a pastor simply starts her or his own church somewhere because she or he thinks they have the right and true way? I’m not saying all of them, but you know the ones… When I lived down South, there was a church in someone’s shed in their back yard. Literally. It was a tool shed with two little windows. There were maybe six people who could fit in it, including the self-proclaimed pastor. Brother so-and-so had it all worked out, and he had some followers, apparently. Anyway, this was Diotrephes… And the Elder — who we’ll John — gets wind that Diotrephes is not only NOT welcoming or helping the Christian missionaries into his church; he’s trying to convince Gaius to do the same. So the Elder John writes this letter, but he doesn’t deliver it himself; instead — and which is typical of these letters — he chooses a man named Demetrius to deliver the letter to the church. The salutation is polite and compliments Gaius, and the closing convinces Gaius and the congregation that the church can trust the messenger Demetrius and, therefore, cannot trust the rogue pastor Diotrephes. Are we all caught up? Imitations So in this letter, John outlines the whole problem and even criticizes Diotrephes, and uses the entire scenario as what we call today “a teachable moment.” In Verse 11, he writes “Don’t imitate what is bad but what is good.” and then the clout, the weight: “Whoever practices what is good belongs to God. Whoever practices what is bad has not seen God.” John really liked the dualism in his writing (and this is one way scholars believe it’s the same John who write the Gospel of John — the dualism are similar: Light vs. dark, truth vs. falsehood, church vs. world; life vs. death; and even children of God vs. children of the devil. Regardless, John exhorts the church to be a welcoming community. Specifically, John is asking the church to welcome the missionaries that the apostles have sent. In Jesus’s and John’s day, hospitality was a very big deal. Welcoming the stranger or traveler or missionary meant opening your home and your pantry to them. Giving them a place to sleep, and not only for the night. Trying to make them feel like family. That was a code people lived by. Diotrephes was afraid of losing control of his congregation if the missionaries were to teach counter to what Diotrephes wanted. Therefore, Diotrephes wanted to exclude anyone who didn’t think the way he did. Diversity I find it interesting that in our Gathering, we’ve had folks here from different backgrounds and different denominations. Baptist, Catholic, Alliance, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. One evening, after one of our services, I met a woman who was snapping a picture of our sign out front inviting folks to The Gathering. We struck up a brief conversation, and I invited her to the next Gathering. She laughed, and she said, “Oh no… I’m Jewish. But I think this is a great idea!” I appreciate that, but I also said that we believe in the same God, and there is decent food. We’d welcome anyone who wanted to partake in this community. Now, if I was Diotrephes, I would have walked away right after learning of her faith. Or worse, I would have not even struck up a conversation with her. Do you see the danger in this? While John isn’t telling the church to accept any and all beliefs into the church — that is, to begin practicing other religions — he’s also saying that we don’t have to worry, like Diotrephes is. We won’t lose control over our churches or communities if we still practice hospitality. Why is that? Because we know God. Verse 11. or, as he says five times in just 15 verses: We know the truth. Confidence in Christ If we know what the truth is, do we ever have to be afraid? No. If we live by the truth and for the truth, we don’t have to worry about the falsehoods. We can be comfortable and confident in that knowledge. That’s a beautiful feeling. If we know the truth, we don’t have to look down at others and say “Well, they don’t know the truth; poor souls!” That statement right there would only be said if we weren’t really confident of the truth. We’d feel threatened somehow, and have to point out someone else’s weakness so that we remain or appear in control. And while it may seem that John is exploiting Diophenes’s weaknesses — and he is; remember, this is a teachable moment — John is also speaking with the authority of not only having known Jesus, but having been given authority by Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Look within Let’s look within our churches and our communities today. What do we see? How hospitable are we really? No doubt, we’re imperfect. But we’re trying, aren’t we? Well, let’s look at that as our first question then: Q1: In our personal lives, our churches and our neighborhoods or communities, how can we be more welcoming? What does or what would that look like? While John — in his style of binaries and dualism — isn’t necessarily telling us to embrace diversity of ideas and thoughts …that isn’t the point of his very specific letter… we really can extract a lesson on what it means to be confident enough in the truth to be able to be hospitable and loving to everyone. It’s Diotrephes who is excluding and throwing out people in his church, and John calls this bad. “Don’t imitate what is bad, but what is good.” Verse 11 again. Q2: So what does imitating bad look like in a church or a community? The struggles Life can be a struggle sometimes. Sometimes it’s hard to take the high road when holding the moral high ground. It’s very important that we look at the bigger picture here that John presents. It’s not just “stay away from Diotrephes,” but it’s to have confidence in the truth. The truth is that God holds us as we glorify God in the way we live. The way Jesus taught us to. The way the Holy Spirit leads us. The way we were created, and honoring the image in whom we were made. John uses the binaries and dualism here simply because it’s so easy: Truth and Falsehood. Don’t be afraid to name the lies. And don’t be afraid to live into the truth. John tells us the way to live into the truth is to be welcoming. To be welcomed is such an amazing feeling. God welcomes us as we are so less than perfect. And God did so by giving us the Son on the cross. We, too, must we as welcoming. To love as Jesus loves us. To love our neighbors as ourselves. And to be welcoming. Not to be afraid. Because the only way to make God’s presence known in the world is to be as welcoming as Jesus was, to stand with truth and stand against falsehoods as Jesus showed us; and to love one another as Jesus loves us. The kingdom is here, expanded in front of us all because of God’s love for us. Let us roll out that welcome mat and extend God’s hospitality to others seeking the truth of the kingdom.